How Kurt Vonnegut tells the story of a tragedy in Slaughterhouse 5
There isn’t any shortage of tragedies in human history, nor is there a lack of accounts of them in popular culture. The questions of how a crime against humanity can actually happen and what we’re supposed to take from it when it does have been explored in everything from movies to song. Many of these have been successful in their own right, but very few have managed to do so with the humour and originality of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, which brought together the disparate elements of war, time-travel, and his own inimitable style of writing to create a work of fiction that’s been hailed as one of the all time greats. Of course, the book has also been called subversive. It’s been banned from countless libraries and schools. So it begs the question, what made the thing so dangerous to the establishment and how did Vonnegut’s particular brand of comedy offer such unique insights on human nature you’d be inclined to call it profound?
Slaughterhouse-Five was published by Kurt Vonnegut in 1969. It outlines the life of Billy Pilgrim, an American soldier who witnessed the destruction of the German city, Dresden, in World War II, who became unstuck from time, and who was subsequently abducted by aliens so that he could mate with a beautiful movie star in their off-world zoo. The story is evidently fictitious, though the inspiration for it came from Vonnegut’s first-hand experience as a prisoner in Dresden when the city was bombed. As Vonnegut explains in the first chapter of the book, he had a lot of difficulty dealing with the things he saw during the war and this difficulty fed into the story itself. In other books, these kind of opening thoughts from the author tend to get labelled as introduction sections. More often than not they only serve as a brief commentary on whatever adventure the reader is about to embark on. But because Vonnegut himself appears as a character in Slaughterhouse-Five, and because the section has such a reciprocal relationship with the rest of the narrative, you can see why he felt the need to title it as the first chapter rather than as an introduction. In fact, the most important questions he asks in the opening echo persistently throughout the rest of the book, namely, why should he tell a story about an atrocity like that of Dresden and how on earth was he supposed to tell it?
Vonnegut had been mulling over how to write Slaughterhouse-Five since he got back from the war, a span of at least twenty years before he ended up publishing the thing. Early in the writing process, the main story element he came to focus on was that of Edgar Derby, a soldier who was executed for attempting to steal a teapot from the ruins of Dresden. But as Vonnegut claims at the start of the book, when he described this as a possible climax to an old friend, the man seemed to become a little uncomfortable with the idea. For him too, the question of why to tell the story and how to tell it were awkward ones, and Vonnegut ran into yet more resistance when another man said that if it was going to be an anti-war book, it might as well be anti-glaciers. The man’s point being that there will always be wars, so what was the use in even broaching the subject?
The question was difficult enough, but of all the problems Vonnegut faced, the disgusted reaction of his old friend’s wife was the most challenging because as it turned out he actually agreed with her point that war stories have usually just been tales of heroics and sacrifice that only ever encourage the next generation of soldiers to follow their own misguided sense of glory to the battlefield. No matter how tragic Vonnegut made the end of his novel, it would just be another John Wayne inspired fantasy that would lead to the deaths of countless more babies; because they are babies, as his friend’s wife declared. It’s always the young who are handed rifles and told to go die for their flag. Vonnegut was so moved by the woman’s outburst that he promised there would be no John Wayne heroics and that he would title the book The Children’s Crusade after the army of European children who were tricked into thinking they were to fight a holy war in Palestine but were instead shipped to North Africa where they were sold as slaves. Of these promises, The Children’s Crusade only became a subtitle for the book, but of the assurance that there would be no John Wayne heroics, Vonnegut went above and beyond what was asked.
Billy Pilgrim is a pathetic protagonist by almost any measure. Yes, he has a tremendous wang, but he’s also slow, clumsy, and worst of all, because he’s apathetic to his survival at the best of times, he’s a constant burden to his fellow soldiers.
In another war story, Billy’s feeble character traits might have been put in contrast to the more capable soldiers around him, but among his brothers in arms we mostly just meet self-centred bullies and misguided patriots who don’t stand a better chance of survival than he does. One of these soldiers is so wrapped up in dreams of heroics that when they’re caught behind enemy lines, he imagines a fantastical scenario where he and his fellow soldiers fight their way home and become known as the Three Musketeers. Of course, in reality, the two other musketeers are killed. Billy and this madman are taken prisoner. And of the possibility that they could maintain some dignity as prisoners of war, Vonnegut even goes so far as to rob them of it by having the German’s lump Billy with a ridiculous silk overcoat instead of an actual POW uniform and has the madman die in the overcrowded conditions of a prisoner train. Somehow I can’t imagine John Wayne accepting a role in a picture that had either of these outcomes. Still, it’s not that there aren’t good soldiers represented in the book. It’s just that Vonnegut makes sure that they’re appropriately satirised for thinking that being a good soldier is some kind of sacred calling. In the case of one colonel, for example, his dying words are for him to declare his nickname one last time, Wild Bob, which he always demanded his troops call him. And later in the book, the utter pointlessness of his death is called to mind once again when a set of statistics are being used to justify the bombing of Dresden, only for Billy to recall the dead colonel’s insistence that if you’re ever in his hometown, just ask for Wild Bob.
Of course, it isn’t just by lampooning all this masculine posturing that Vonnegut disillusions the reader to the romantic image of war.
In times past, popular war stories, like the kind John Wayne starred in, mostly boiled down to the basic concept of good guys versus bad guys. The opposing side in these stories were basically just cannon fodder, waves of human-shaped figures that could be gunned down without the hero having to deal with even a niggling doubt as to whether they were doing the right thing. In large part, this style of war story has mostly disappeared from modern movie theatres and when they do pop-up they generally lean into their label as exploitation pictures. Meanwhile, the need to gun down human-shaped figures for fun has morphed into more genre-oriented fare, with the likes of Dawn of the Dead and The Avengers, or have emigrated to other forms of media altogether, as in the case of the very lucrative business of triple-A video games. Nevertheless, even compared to the war stories of today, when some degree of moral ambiguity is expected, Vonnegut sinks so far into the grey that the very notion of black and white loses any semblance of meaning.
The German’s we meet in Slaughterhouse-Five are mostly decent. In the first chapter, Vonnegut describes a taxi driver that he and his friend spoke with who was taken captive by the American’s during the war. As it turns out, they struck up a friendship and the man ended up sending Vonnegut’s friend a Christmas card in which he expressed his hope that they would meet again when the world was at peace. In the story too, the soldiers who lump Billy with the silk overcoat don’t seem to be especially cruel, just kind of endeared by Billy’s clownish behaviour. The German’s who run one of the camps have a convivial relationship with the British officers who’ve been taken captive there. And the civilian population of Germany itself are so welcoming to the American POWs that when the entire city of Dresden is burned to the ground and the prisoners find they have no more captors to keep them captive, they’re welcomed by a local innkeeper who kindly wishes them goodnight as they bed down in his barn. All of this plays out in contrast to Billy’s fellow servicemen who fight amongst themselves, enjoy despicable things like bestiality, torture and revenge, and overall, come off as so reprehensible that at first glance the book could virtually be described as anti-American. Indeed, the level of spite Vonnegut reaches is so venomous that at one point he introduces a cartoonish American officer who has switched sides in the war and now lectures the POWs on why they should do the same, all while wearing a mongrel SS uniform, styled with the red, white and blue of the United States flag.
To put this in context, Slaughterhouse-Five was written when the movement against the war in Vietnam had reached its zenith. For many, the war had become less of a moral action and more a case of saving face. All things considered, given the era it came out of, you can understand how Vonnegut would have been moved to create such a warped version of Uncle Sam and even go so far as to say that since one of the books chief aims was to deliver a message against war, the only way it could be read as anti-American would be to say that it was because America was always at war. Even so, while I’m sure Vonnegut was expressing some actual resentment for the American military establishment, he clearly wasn’t under any illusion that the German people were just a bunch of innocent bystanders. It’s a disturbing fact that Billy Pilgrim, and Vonnegut in real life too, unwittingly used the candles and soap that was produced from the very bodies of people submitted to the concentration camp system. Moreover, the dehumanisation of prisoners that allowed this type of crime to happen isn’t just something that’s alluded to with the mention of these gruesome artifacts. It’s experienced by Billy himself when he sits in the prisoner train and Vonnegut describes the carriage from the German soldiers’ perspective not as a group of humans who required care, but as a single organism which ate and drank and excreted through the boxcar’s ventilators. Not least of all, even among the civilian population of Dresden, Billy witnesses a Polish man hanged in front of a crowd for the mere crime of sleeping with a German woman. Taken together, it’s evident that Vonnegut’s prime objective was to figure out how he was supposed to resign all of the contradictions and injustices he’d been forced to witness with the genuine moments of compassion and generosity that were shared, and in addition, how he was supposed to feel about the fact that he saw examples of both on each side.
Without a doubt, the German’s were responsible for one of the greatest horrors humanity has ever committed, but if this was the case, where did British-American bombing of Dresden reach on the scale? The city had no military bases. It had no war industry or defence of any consequence. As time went on it became apparent it was important as a communication hub so the roads and bridges needed to be knocked out. But then what of the Ally planes that gunned down survivors among the ruins? Although the casualty figures were thought to be vastly higher in the years immediately after the war, at a very minimum, twenty-thousand civilians were killed when the city was bombed over the course of three days. Kurt Vonnegut, as shown through the eyes of Billy, saw any number of monstrous acts I couldn’t mention here and he himself was a part of the machine that made it all happen. The experience evidently left him broken and embittered. The fact that all of Dresden was raised to the ground and no acceptable reason had been given at the time of the book being written, does at least shine a light on why Vonnegut should have told such a story. It was the only way to make sense of the senseless. But given all of the chaos at the heart of the matter, over the many years he spent trying to write one version or another of Slaughterhouse-Five, there still remained the problem of how he could tell the story. The answer, as many a science-fiction fan could tell you, turned out to be a relatively simple one: Time travel.
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At the beginning of Slaughterhouse-Five, we learn that Billy has come unstuck from time. If you’re not familiar with the concept, it essentially means that Billy’s consciousness has been forced to shift backwards and forwards at random intervals along the timeline of his life. Worse still, he has no command over the process. One moment he could be traipsing through the snow of war-torn Europe, the next he could be at his daughter’s wedding twenty years down the road. This also means that within the world of Slaughterhouse-Five every happening in the universe is a predetermined one. Billy is no more able to change events in the so-called future than you or I would be able to change them in the past. In point of fact, at one stage in this strange journey, Billy is taken captive by a race of aliens known as the Tralfamadorians who perceive everything that has happened and that will happen as having occurred all at the same time. According to the Tralfamadorians, humans are unique in how they perceive events as taking place one after another and are bemused that we could see ourselves as anything other than machines performing our parts in a scripted stage play over which we have no control.
While their complete acceptance of this lack of free will might seem to be a terribly bleak revelation to the average person, these aliens make the case that humanity’s limited comprehension of reality is so depressing to them, so excruciating and ignorant, that our situation could best be described as being forced to look through a very long pipe at the end of which we can only see a small source of light. Wherever we go in the world, we’re forced to look wherever the pipe is pointed, with the result that we’ll only ever see a minuscule portion of existence one tiny bit at a time. What’s more, wherever we’re forced to look we’re only able to say, ‘That’s life.’
This description of reality surely does make our experience of the universe feel a tad inferior, but it isn’t necessarily the case that Billy has an easier time of it once he’s free from the shackles of linear existence. In actuality, having become unstuck from time, the end result is that he isn’t particularly attached to anything at all.
I joked earlier that the solution to Vonnegut’s problem of how to tell the story of his experience in Dresden was a simple enough one for a science fiction fan to solve. All the same, it’s worth pointing out how strikingly original this view of reality was.
I’ve often wondered how exactly Vonnegut came up with the concept of getting unstuck from time but when it comes down to it, I think it was probably conjured up from an array of different sources. For one thing, cutting backwards and forwards in the timeline is obviously a common enough storytelling method. It might just have been a clever leap for him to do it in a more literal manner. Having a character interact with the writer’s technique like this is a kind of metagame that the likes of James Joyce or Flannery O’Connor would have enjoyed and Vonnegut might have been playing in the same sandbox when he dug up the idea. Although, if I were to speculate somewhat more liberally, I’d say it’s possible that he was more directly influenced by Catch 22, Joseph Heller’s anti-war book which also jumps backwards and forwards in the narrative in an attempt to explore the absurdity of war. There are a few other sources that Vonnegut might have been influenced by, if only in a tangential way. I’ll touch on them a little later, but for now, as many people have pointed out, the most interesting parallel you could draw with the books description of being knocked about time is that of a soldier inflicted with PTSD, something which Vonnegut seems to have related to when he described his own suffering in the first chapter of the book.
The jumps Billy goes through apparently happen at random, so at first you might say that this is a fairly loose comparison to draw, however, whether or not it’s directly linked to his time travel escapades, you can at least confirm Billy actually is suffering from PTSD with his reaction to the barbershop quartet at his wedding anniversary, which triggers an emotional breakdown, rather than an actual leap through time and that prompts him to recall when Dresden was bombed. As it turns out, on the day he and his fellow prisoners emerged from the safety of their bunker, the look of incomprehensible terror on the German soldiers’ faces as they surveyed the destruction of their city was so uncanny Billy could only compare them to a barbershop quartet in a silent film; an inexpressible image of fear and awe, buried so deeply in his subconscious that he didn’t realise the mark it left on him until seeing the performance at this wedding anniversary many decades on.
Further to this, there really are shades of PTSD to Billy’s actual time jumps too. At one point, when he’s bounced back from another era, he just steps out of the bathroom and returns to bed with his wife as if nothing has happened at all. Sadly, I’m sure there are plenty of soldiers’ wives who’ve seen their husband’s disappear into memories of the past and who have only been able to welcome them back as they returned to bed.
Of all the symptoms Billy demonstrates though, the effect of a dissociative disorder, which creates an acute depersonalisation from both yourself and your surroundings, is easily the most prominent. As far as I understand it, disorders like this can be brought on with no identifiable trigger, but many people experience them as a result of extreme psychological trauma. Whatever the case, Billy certainly fits the bill. As described by himself, he’s in a constant state of stage fright because he never knows what part of his life he’s going to have to act in next. Arguments he has with loved ones are perceived as orchestrated moments and the terrible disasters that fall upon him always seem destined to happen, so there’s little to say about them beyond whatever preordained words he was supposed to have. Of course, if you’re to take Billy’s journey at face value, this utter detachment from responsibility is probably explained best when Billy asks the Trafalmadorians why they kidnapped him, of all people, and they reply with the question of, Why anything?
Now I can understand how this whole concept of being subject to the chain of cause and effect could be a depersonalising experience, especially if you can see the entire chain of your life from beginning to end, but it’s also likely the Tralfamadorians are living with their own fair share of trauma, what with them being responsible for the destruction of the universe a couple million years from now. Of course, because they experience all of time at once, you can also assume they’re being honest when they suggest the best method of dealing with this kind of trauma is to just concentrate on happier things.
Regardless, whether this intergalactic adventure is a delusion of Billy’s or something that’s truly happening to him, Vonnnegut’s specific take on time travel requires a lot more philosophical thought than your average time travel tale.
In general, I’d say the basic idea of travelling through time is simple enough for anybody to understand. With the likes of Back to the Future, Bill and Ted, A Kid in King Arthur’s Court, and many many more, you basically just have to follow a protagonist on a journey to an unfamiliar location, albeit a location in another time, and watch as they struggle to get home. On a slightly more imaginative level, there’s also the idea of the infinite loop, like the one you probably know from Groundhog Day, any number of genre TV show episodes, that one season of Haruhi Suzumiya that drove everyone nuts, Groundhog Day, any number of genre TV show episodes, and that one season Haruhi Suzumiya that drove everyone nuts. The countless takes on these tropes can range from clever to mundane, but in the case of Slaughterhouse-Five’s time jumping consciousness, the structure of making such a story seems to demand so high a quality of writing to even make it work that it acts a selection method that only allows quality products to be produced once all is said and done. For instance, Ronald D. Moore and Brannon Braga utilised the concept as a compelling science fiction mystery in the final episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Constant, written by Carlton Cusea and Damon Lindelof, is one of the most popular episodes of Lost and maybe one of the most emotionally wrought hours of television produced in the past fifteen years. And Ted Chiang’s novella, The Story of Your Life, borrowed both the time travel mechanic and the Tralfamadorians to underscore an extremely touching message, which was then successfully translated to screen by Denis Villeneuve with his 2016 film, Arrival. So anyway, while I’m partly just listing this family tree of science fiction stories for the pure fun of it, the main point I’m getting to is that while each of Slaughterhouse-Five’s successors built on its time shifting mechanic for extremely dramatic effect, Vonnegut’s novel is still the blueprint for how they all approached it while also maintaining an identity that’s utterly unique. By way of illustration, they each limit the time jumping that happens to a particular section of their character’s lives, rather than, say, having them leap back to the day the character was born. They each have their story remain on a predetermined track, rather than using a trick that would allow the timeline to be altered. And they each have their characters confront mistakes or traumas of their past. Yet even taking all this into account, Slaughterhouse-Five has remained distinct from them because while they all relied upon the intensely sentimental perspective the concept lends itself to, Kurt Vonnegut did everything he could to consciously strip his story of it.
There’s a notably funny moment in the book where Kurt Vonnegut himself is suffering from diarrhea while he and Billy are being transported to Dresden. As the description goes, he’d excreted everything but his brains, only for Vonnegut to respond, ‘There they go!’
It’s a typical example of how Vonnegut prefers to find ridiculous humor in even the most dire of circumstances and you can see more examples of it in pretty much every section of the book. Sometimes these vulgar asides are slipped into the story just for the craic, like when Billy wakes up on a public train and the porter remarks that he sure had a hard-on. But at others they act as layered observations, like when the American soldiers are stripped naked and Vonnegut says of their shrivelled private parts that reproduction was not the main business of the evening. Or when he lampoons his own virtue signalling by describing how he’s instructed his children not to partake in any massacres and that the news of massacres of their enemies are not to fill them with satisfaction or glee. As with most of Vonnegut’s books, the prose is often split into extremely short paragraphs so that these punchlines have room to land. It’s a very practical approach to comedy, but it also works for more dramatic turns too, in that certain events are highlighted as important by being broken up with an abundant use of paragraph breaks. On an even more pragmatic level though, the short sections of writing also make for what could have been a very confusing timeline, a relatively easy read.
The books leaps from Billy’s time in the war, to his experience as a captor in an alien zoo, back to his brief stint in the mental hospital, and to just about every other interval of his life in between, so the fact that each section can be enjoyed on its own terms means you’re able to give yourself over to the journey, safe in the knowledge that Vonnegut isn’t going to lead you astray. On top of this though, while the book at first seems to be a scattering of random events plucked from different periods of Billy’s life, like that of a Tralfamadorian work of art, they each have a very clear beginning, middle, and end. Billy’s time in the war gradually builds to the bombing of Dresden, his time with his wife gradually builds to her death and his eventual rise as a noted public figure, and his time in the alien zoo sees the gradual growth of his relationship with the beautiful movie star with whom the Transfalmadorians have chosen for him to mate. What’s more, though there are a few strategic breaks in the formulae, on the whole each era develops so that the dramatic highs and lows of the book are experienced at the same rate you’d expect from a more traditional story, something you can appreciate all the better when you learn about Vonnegut’s approach to writing.
Before he came up with the idea of time travel mechanic, Vonnegut had a version of Slaughterhouse-Five planned out on a long roll of wallpaper where the journey of each character was drawn out in different coloured lines of crayon. Edgar Derby’s line came to an end when he was executed for stealing the teapot. I’m sure there were many lines that came to an end before his, and whatever other characters Vonnegut was considering at the time presumably stretched out far into the future, so it’s an interesting method for Vonnegut to mention in terms of keeping track of the plot. You could say it might have been another instance where he was inspired to look at the nature of time in such a unique manner. But it’s also interesting because at one stage in his life Vonnegut had put forward a master’s thesis in anthropology in which he stated that the fundamentals of storytelling have shapes that are so simple they could be drawn on a sheet of graph paper. On one graph, a curving line would show how a character gets into trouble, gets out of it again, and ends up better off for the experience. In another, the line remains on a downward trajectory to show how the character’s situation gets continually worse. Vonnegut’s basic theory was that the shape of a society’s most popular stories should be at least as interesting to anthropologists as the shapes of pots and spearheads. The thesis was rejected, but nevermind that; This stripped down way of looking at storytelling is obviously quite easy to understand and while I don’t know if he had the thesis in mind when writing Slaughterhouse-Five, it also demonstrates how the utilisation of simple visual cues could have helped him to keep the confusing structure so intuitive to read.
Of course, all of this just describes how he approached the writing and there’s a lot more to the book than an example of craft. This is, afterall, a story where the writer inserted a fictional character into one of the most traumatic moments of his life, so though sentimentally is nowhere to be found, it’s clear that Vonnegut was intent on expressing both his anxiety and his unusual world view.
In many ways, Billy Pilgrim’s experience can feel slightly shallow. Even before his alien kidnappers enlighten him to his stunted view of time, the humour, the matter-of-fact descriptions, and the absolutely surreal elements of the story all serve to keep any real emotion at bay. That said, in the absence of a protagonist with any agency, Vonnegut’s angst ridden thoughts are expressed in such a manner that the actual writing became the emotional backbone of the novel. Throughout the text, whether it’s with humour or sober horror, events are told in a way that force you to look upon the existential crisis Vonnegut lived with after the bombing of Dresden, and further to that, even go so far as to satirise the useless angst he felt upon acknowledging it. Over and over again the language used to describe humanity is that of biological machines, eating, excreting and reproducing their way to death. Men who are punched and kicked are described as tubes full of wires. Billy’s desire to get married is described as the symptom of a disease. And Vonnegut even cynically describes the book itself as something that could make him a lot of money. In a way, it all ties back to his promise that there wouldn’t be any John Wayne heroics, in that, it would have been very easy to write a tearjerker about Dresden that spoke to the fragile nature of human existence. In the years since Vietnam there wasn’t exactly a shortage of stories that emphasised the injustices and inhumanity of war. However, in Vonnegut’s mind, a story like that might only have added to the romance of war because the mistakes and tragedies that happened could have just been assimilated into his nation’s myth, to the extent that the second world war would only be remembered as an uncertain time for the American people, but one which they bravely fought through and won. This is all to say, while the imitators of Slaughterhouse-Five could safely play within a realm of sentimentality natural to that of a character looking over the timeline of their life, Vonnegut couldn’t for one moment allow the veterans who’d found themselves present at the disaster of Dresden to somehow be martyred because all you would have been able to do upon reading was applaud them for their service and thank them for what they suffered through. It isn’t that poignant moments don’t appear in Slaughterhouse-Five. On the contrary, there are a few instances in the terrible circumstances that are so tender, like when the Russian soldier untangles Billy from the prison camp wire, I found myself wishing they’d actually been experienced by Vonnegut himself. Because the fact remains, as bitter as the story can get at times, there’s a very real need to express a love for humanity in its pages, or at least a desperation to find it, and it would have been nice for him to have some memories that allowed him a little respite from all the dread.
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Of the disjointed narrative in the book, there is one more Kurt Vonnegut anecdote worth a mention. In an interview with the Paris Review, he stated of his approach to plots that he didn’t think of them as accurate representations of life, but as ways of keeping the reader reading. The advice he gave to his creative writing students was to make their character want something right from the outset, even if it was just a glass of water. A particularly good example he mentioned was that of a story one of his students wrote about a nun who got a piece of dental floss stuck between her lower left molars, and who couldn’t get it out all day long. The story, he said, dealt with issues a lot more important than dental floss, but what kept readers going was the anxiety about when the dental floss would finally be removed.
In this way, Slaughterhouse-Five is a jumbled narrative but there are plenty of elements inserted to keep the reader invested right up to the end.
The bombing of Dresden is obviously a huge point of interest throughout the story. Though we’re told in the beginning that both Billy and Vonnegut were present at the disaster, the details are held off until the full tragedy of the event can be revealed in the climactic sections of the book. Yes, we’re aware of the sheer number of victims Vonnegut believed to be present in the city when it was destroyed, but it’s only when we’ve been exposed to all of the philosophical deadends Vonnegut outlines that we can appreciate the tragedy in all of its grandeur.
The anti-war theme that Vonnegut sets up at the beginning of the book can be followed along with the build up to the disaster too. While it’s outright stated at the start that Vonnegut didn’t think the destruction of the city was necessary, it’s only through the countless myriad of injustices and absurdities we see that the bombing itself isn’t why he’s against the idea of war. It’s just the ultimate extreme of it. Once again, it’s important to remember that the book was written at a time when the public outcry over the war in Vietnam was at an all time high. Generally speaking, the American entry into World War II is remembered as a much less morally corrupt endeavour and that in all probability Germany’s crimes would not have been put to a stop without them. Still, it’s also important to recognise that victories like this can then become the justification for the political maneuvers of a self-serving establishment many years down the line. To this end, the question of the Vietnam war could have become whether it was as justified as that of World War II, but Vonnegut allowed for this question to be invalidated altogether by calling the methods utilized in World War II itself into question. In this way, you can understand why he has America’s fate in the book to be bombed by China. Given the echoes that feature throughout the story, it would seem to be poetic justice for something he believed in his heart to be wrong; The possibility of war, any war, being something that should never be scrutinised. You could look at this as an incredibly naive outlook for Vonnegut to latch onto, so redundant in the face of such harsh realities, that, like the man at the beginning of the book said, he might as well have made an argument against glaciers.
But, as I’m sure many of you chuckled when I mentioned it the first time round, we’re now living in a world where glaciers will soon be a thing of the past.
There does of course remain the question of Billy’s sanity, which you might have picked up on as something to follow before I mentioned it here, given the fact that at the beginning of the book we’re told that Billy has just undergone shock treatment, but I always had this nagging feeling that there was no conclusive evidence for his mental state one way another and having reread the book recently I think I got some clarity on the matter.
In favour of the interpretation that Billy is insane, his time travelling experience does indeed have some parallels with the symptoms of a veteran suffering from PTSD. It’s also been pointed out that his stay in the alien zoo has some similarities with that of his time as a prisoner in Dresden, meaning it could just be a dream built on that experience. Furthermore, the fact that he’s partnered with a beautiful movie star while he’s in the zoo is surely evidence that he’s living in the kind of fantasy he’d have generated from being in an unhappy marriage. And anyway, the whole thing about being abducted by aliens like this bears a striking resemblance to the book of a science fiction author named Kilgore Trout who he happens to befriend during his time on earth.
Meanwhile the evidence against the interpretation is a bit more subtle but I don’t think it’s any less compelling. For example, the echoes that resound throughout Slaughterhouse-Five aren’t limited to elements in a fantasy that we could guess are based on aspects of his life, but, rather, can be read as pure literary allusion. In one such case, the black and orange crosshatch lines painted on the train to Dresden that designate it as a prisoner carrier which should not be bombed show up again as lines that decorate the tent at his daughter’s wedding. In another strange coincidence, a photograph of a woman having intimate relations with a Shetland pony is shown to Billy by one of his fellow servicemen in the war and shows up again years later when he’s in the back of an adult book store. On this same occasion, it’s evident that the beautiful movie star he’s paired with in the zoo actually is a missing woman on Earth and that it’s a bit of a surprise discovery for Billy when he sees news of it among some grainy x-rated photos of her in a tabloid spread. And on top of it all, the whole motif of repeated imagery and wordplay is something Vonnegut sets up early on in the book when his friends wife prepares, ‘Two leather chairs near a fire in a paneled room, where two old soldiers could drink and talk,’ and later, ‘Two straight-backed chairs at a kitchen table that was screaming with reflected light from a two-hundred-watt bulb.’
Of course, there are twice as many examples as that, though I haven’t figured out a point to this motif which shows up a bunch of other times, besides maybe the possibility Vonnegut was just expressing his boredom with the repetitive slog of life. And I admit, I was a little perplexed as to why the movie star and their baby were kept in the alien zoo while Billy was allowed to return to Earth. Presumably, it’s left to us to figure out that the Transformoldians let him go in order to lecture our species on the nature of time. Plus, to confuse matters further, all of this exists in the shadow of the fact that Kurt Vonnegut did have a bit of a contentious relationship with the science fiction scene. In many ways he set himself apart from it because he thought it allowed for too many lowbrow works of literature, but at the same time he had a lot of friends who were respected science fiction authors and even based the character traits of Kilgore Trout on Theodore Sturgeon, a major player in the world of science fiction and who he hailed as one of America’s greatest writers. At any rate, at a certain point in Vonnegut’s career, he refused to call himself a science fiction author at all, though in large part this was because he resented authors being put into genre categories and that if he was going to be in stuck any, he’d prefer to be in one that was more critically admired. Taken together, it’s apparent there were some commercial considerations that might have led him to obscure the science fiction nature of the book, but I think it’s also necessary to point out that the question as to Billy’s mental health is left open for a much nuanced reason.
It would be wrong to say there’s definitive evidence that Billy is imagining the entire time travel thing, just as it would be wrong to say everything he talks about is true. Really, any power that can be taken from the story comes from its ambiguity. It’s devastating to know that what a soldier goes through after a war can be interpreted as such a shattered reality, and equally sad to know that the learned helplessness Billy experiences from his broader understanding of time is at best comparable to a person who’s suffered from a complete and utter emotional breakdown.
Finally, there is the thread of poor old Edgar Derby and the teapot he stole.
Vonnegut sets up the story at the beginning of the novel and seems to imply that he recognises it both as a truly heartbreaking recollection from the war, but also as one that if it was illustrated, would only be a pale imitation of the truth. Nonetheless, it’s a recollection that follows Vonnegut and Billy throughout the book, no matter how far they try to run from it. On the whole, Derby is only seen on the periphery of Billy’s path through the war, but the moments he does come to the fore stand out in a couple of noticeable ways. For starters, he’s easily portrayed as the most patriotic of the American soldiers when he stands up to the turncoat Uncle Sam, ironically enough, just minutes before Dresden is bombed. Prior to that, one of sweetest moments Billy enjoys in the war is when he’s put to work in a prison factory that makes a vitamin enriched syrup which he manages to spoon a mouthful of when nobody is looking, nobody, that is, except a salivating Edgar Derby who’s stood outside the factory window. Billy’s reaction isn’t one of fear. Only one of pure joy when he’s able to scoop up a spoonful of syrup to make a lollipop for the man. And lastly, the knowledge of how Derby’s life came to an end is clearly too heavy a burden for Billy to bear when halfway through the novel his wife attempts to make him confront the issue only for both Billy and Vonnegut to cut the moment off in true Trafalmadorian fashion. That is to say, rather try to confront the pain, the text is interrupted by a more comforting string of capitalised words: EVERYTHING WAS BEAUTIFUL, AND NOTHING HURT. I suppose on a certain level you could take this as more evidence of Billy’s degraded mental state, but regardless, whether the time jumping that helps him to face the pain of his existence is imaginary or real, it’s what eventually leads him to confronting the sheer enormity of the Dresden bombing and to complete the story of Edgar Derby, as short as it is.
After the flames in Dresden ate everything organic, after a soldier Billy had worked with died of dry heaves when he was told to dig out the liquified remains of the German soldiers, after twenty years of Vonnegut trying to write Slaughterhouse-Five, the entire book acts as a build up to a simple, singular fact: Somewhere in there the poor old high school teacher, Edgar Derby, was caught with a teapot he had taken from the catacombs. He was arrested for plundering. He was tried and shot.
* * *
I would like to take whatever bonus points are due to me for managing to get this far without quoting the most well known words Kurt Vonnegut ever put to paper. I will also forfeit said points for the amount of times I’m going to say them now.
So it goes is a line Vonnegut uses anytime a character in Slaughterhouse-Five dies. And in a book that primarily deals with the deaths of over twenty-thousand people, you can well imagine how often it appears. In a way, you could look at the words as a kind of resigned acceptance, not just to the events of Dresden, but to the nature of life and death itself. Nevertheless, to pin any one meaning on them would be to do the book an injustice.
In cinema, there’s a concept known as the Soviet Theory of Montage that proposes the image immediately preceding a section of film can greatly influence the viewers interpretation of the whole. For example, if a shot of a bowl of soup is followed by the pallid expression of an old man, you could safely intuit that the man is hungry. But if that same shot of the old man was preceded by an image of a child in a coffin, you’d probably render a much richer inner life for him. This was obviously a common enough technique in literature long before cinema came along, though I’m not sure if there’s a specific term for it. I suppose you’d just call it poetry. In any case, to put all of this in context:
When Billy attempts to pop open a bottle of champagne, but can’t because it’s gone flat and dead, So it goes is the punch line to a joke.
When Billy’s father dies in a hunting accident while his son is away at war, So it goes is an acknowledgement of the irony that these things can happen.
When Billy gets his official prisoner register number from the German’s and it’s said that before he got the number, legally speaking he was considered dead, So it goes is an indication of the absurd.
And when Billy’s dog Spot dies and Vonnegut remarks that Billy had liked Spot and Spot had liked him, So it goes is just downright sad.
In some instances, you can look at So it goes as a bit of a rorschach test for the reader, in that what might make one person laugh, could make another feel an uncomfortable feeling of unease. But, of course, when Vonnegut starts stacking up one devastating death after another, all of the people Billy had known throughout the course of his life, all the people who just happened to pass through it, all of the victims of the German concentration camps and all of the civilians caught in the fires of Dresden, So it goes is both a protest against the pure tragedy of reality and an admission that there’s just nothing else that could be said. If you were to be somewhat cynical, you could say Vonnegut tried for years to craft an appropriate response to the bombing and this bitter rebuke was all he could come up with, but even within the pages of Slaughterhouse-Five he actually did try to offer a solution to help prevent any crimes against humanity occurring again.
Christianity is no small source of consternation in the book. Billy, we’re told, was raised in some denomination of the fate and kept a typically gruesome crucifix in his bedroom as a child. In the army, he was the assistant to a chaplain and had a strong enough belief in God that it irritated the men around him. After the war, he doesn’t exactly speak of any crisis of faith, though he is drawn towards the theological arguments of the science fiction writer that he befriends and who points out however humane Christians claim to be, they still clearly have a strong inclination towards cruelty and that the problem finds its roots in the story of Christ himself. According to the sci-fi writer, the issue is that because Jesus was the son of God, when humanity killed him, the lesson we learned wasn’t to be kind to one another, but rather, never to hurt somebody who’s well connected. So far as he’s concerned, the world would be a much better place if Jesus could be any bum on the street, a circumstance that would surely prevent us from accepting any kind of hierarchical order in which it’s okay to be cruel to your fellow man so long as they’re lower than you on the pegging order. In this soft-reboot of Christianity, it’s Billy, that painfully average nobody that becomes the Christlike figure who suffers for the sins committed at Dresden and who goes on to spread the Gospel of non-linear time. Indeed, in a way Billy is only building on theories Christian thinkers have professed in the past.
Back in the days when new denominations of faith were first breaking away from the Catholic church, one of the more interesting ideas they put forward was that if God was omniscient, then surely everything you were going to do in life was already known. As such, so far as these people could see, they had no control over whether they’d commit a sin in the future. All they could do was play the parts that were scripted for them and hope that in the course of living it would become evident that they were worthy of gaining entry into heaven. It’s interesting to think that Vonnegut might have been aware of other Christian concepts like this because it would mean they could have been yet another source of inspiration for his idea of getting unstuck from time. Overall though, I have to say that the predominant tone I get from the book is more of a nihilistic one, so there is yet another source Vonnegut appears to have a jam session with in the form of Frederik Nietzche, the philosopher who famously declared that God was dead and who proposed that in order to become a good person, we should instead act with the assumption that on dying we’ll be forced to live our lives over and over again. It might sound like a bit of a reach to declare a direct link between Billy Pilgrim and this doctrine of eternal recurrence, but I think there’s evidence for it in a scene where Billy is chastised by a group of German civilians for allowing a horse to draw his carriage when it was clearly dying of thirst. On recognising the horses suffering, Billy breaks down crying in one of the few moments of open devastation he expresses in the entire book, let alone in the war, which is remarkably similar to the story of how Nietzche supposedly lost his sanity when he stumbled across a horse being whipped by its master. In this way, Billy is both at once the horse beater, the mad man who gains an incredible insight on the nature of our existence, and of course, the savior who has come to spread the word.
In the final chapter of Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut loops around to the discussions he and his friend were having at the beginning of the book. In particular, his friend hands him a list of statistics which Vonnegut transcribes as:
On an average, 324,000 new babies are born into the world every day. During that same day, 10,000 persons, on an average, will have starved to death or died from malnutrition. So it goes. In addition, 123,000 persons will die for other reasons. So it goes. This leaves a net gain of about 191,000 each day in the world. The Population Reference Bureau predicts that the world’s total population will double to 7,000,000,000 before the year 2000.
Slaughterhouse-Five was published almost fifty years ago. I’m not sure how exactly this group of statistics was compiled, but it’s remarkable how accurate it turned out to be. As of the year 2000, the population of the world was in fact close to the predicted figure at 6.115 billion. But what’s most important was Kurt Vonnegut’s prediction that, ‘I suppose they will all want dignity.’
And In the face of such an unspeakable amount of despair it does bring to mind another Christian philosophy he was familiar with:
GOD GRANT ME THE SERENITY TO ACCEPT THE THINGS I CANNOT CHANGE, COURAGE TO CHANGE THE THINGS I CAN, AND WISDOM ALWAYS TO TELL THE DIFFERENCE.
The words appear in the book two times, as it happens. Once as a picture on Billy’s office wall. Another engraved on the movie stars locket which also contained a photograph of her alcoholic mother; a photo so grainy, Vonnegut says, it could have been anyone. Though this serenity to accept things you can’t change might otherwise be expressed as, So it goes, it’s fair to say they would still end up sounding like the amen in a prayer. So what of the story of Dresen and the question of how Vonnegut was supposed to tell it? Did he succeed in finding an answer or did the account of Dresen get lost in the sci-fi trappings? In his own words, the book was a failure, because even at its best that was all it could be. For my part though, I think we’re lucky he wrote Slaughterhouse-Five. Stanley Kubrick’s wife once revealed that her husband spent over two years researching the holocaust in an effort to make a movie about it, but in the time he spent trying to figure out how he should tell the story, Stephen Spielberg managed to research, direct and release Schindler’s List, a masterwork of moralistic filmmaking if ever there was one. As the story goes, Kubrick abandoned the project because he’d been beaten to the punch, but his wife implied it was also partly because it was so difficult to be focused on such an overwhelmingly dark subject matter for so long a time. I think this is a relevant anecdote to tell, because it shows how you can’t take it for granted that Kurt Vonnegut conceived of a way to tell the story of Dresden that was honest to suffering he knew and actually managed to follow through to the end. It’s just one of those happenstances wherein one of the most unique voices in American literature had first hand experience of one of the ugliest moments of the second world war. And, what’s more, that he seemed to have experienced a genuine stroke of genius when he figured out exactly how his version of it was supposed to be told. While I can’t say whether or not he was as intensely focused as Stanley Kubrick in the twenty years he mulled it over, you can at least appreciate how much his time in Dresden weighed on him over the years. As a matter of fact, there’s a point in the book where Vonnegut recounts the old bible story of Sodem and Gomorrah in which God rained down fire and brimstone on the cities’ inhabitants to punish them for their wicked ways. In this story, Lot and his wife were told not to look back at the destruction. But Lot’s wife did look back and was turned into a pillar of salt for her crime, something which Vonnegut says made him love her because it was such a human thing to do. All told, Vonnegut himself probably felt like a pillar of salt at times, a dead man walking through life while a part of him was stuck looking at the past. You could sum it all up with his favourite three words. But so far as he was concerned, it would seem any thoughts on the matter were best left for the birds; Nature’s variation of his most famous refrain…
Blue Danube by Strauss
The Hardest Part by Jeremy Blake
Space Coast by Topher Mohr and Alex Elena
Web Weavers Dance by Asher Fulero
Hathor Hymnal by Jesse Gallagher
Drone in D by Kevin MacLeod
Lonely Nights by Silent Partner
Memphis Belle (1990)
Band of Brothers (2001)
Saving Private Ryan (1998)
Quantum Leap (1989-1993)
A Single Man (2009)
Field of Dreams (1989)
A Serious Man (2009)
Gentlemen Broncos (2009)
Kurt Vonnegut: So It Goes (1983)
The Thin Red Line (1998)
The Longest Day (1962)
The Letter for the King (2020)
As Far as My Feet Will Carry Me (2001)
The Green Berets (1968)
Inglorious Basterds (2009)
Avengers Assemble (2012)
Call of Duty WW2 (2017)
The Tree of Life (2011)
Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
The Truman Show (1998)
The Black Hole (1979)
Star Wars (1977)
The Time Machine (2002)
Back to the Future II (1989)
Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989)
A Kid in King Arthur’s Court (1995)
Groundhog Day (1993)
Stargate: SG1 (1997)
The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (2006)
Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987)
Pulp Fiction (1994)
One Flew Over The Cuckoos Nest (1975)
The Master (2012)
8 1⁄2 (1963)
The Life of Bryan (1979)
The Matrix (1999)
Lou Andreas-Salomé, The Audacity to be Free (2016)
Children of Men (2006)
Stanley Kubrick’s Boxes (2008)